Two words that can fight as often as agree: Conservative Catholic

I chafe when the label “conservative” is applied to me.

I am not embarrassed to be called a conservative or associated with its ideas. Rather, I think it reduces who I am to a political category and fails to account for what I consider to be much more fundamental to who I am – indeed for what I think is the fundamental fact that defines me, my Catholicism. Catholicism lived rightly transcends and explodes political categories and causes my political commitments to be in tension with my deeper Catholic mode of seeing the world. 

What are my starting points then, if not conservative principles? That each of us is loved into being and sustained by love. That we are not random bits of organic material who happen to be here by mere chance. That we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that God entered into history in a specific human person, Jesus Christ. And it is Christ, as the Second Vatican Council taught, who “fully reveals man to man himself” and teaches that man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

Men and women are made to give themselves to others and have an inestimable God-given dignity. Additionally, people are made to be in relationship, indeed, are constituted by relationships: to God, to family, to society, to friends, to Creation, etc. Each person is born into a family and into a web of relationships. Each person is given his or her being by God and is fostered and cared for within the context of a family and community. As my friend David Schindler has argued “there is no community anywhere in the creaturely universe that is purely, or first, voluntary in character, because relation to all creatures is already given in the act of creation.” Schindler's point is that each person is constituted by this web of relationships. There is no abstraction known as the individual.

This has obvious implications for how I view politics and society. There is no state of nature where we exist separate from each other. The Lockean principles at the root of America’s founding are decidedly incompatible with a proper understanding of the human person. Politics then is not a zero-sum game by which I try to maximize my rights at the expense of others, or by which I try to minimize negative drags on my freedom. Nor is government merely a necessary evil – something we have to put up with – but, a necessary coordinating institution that is a function of our social nature.

The principle that each person is made in the image and likeness of God also has necessary implications for how we should view our care for the voiceless – the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the immigrant, the disabled. I find resonance with Hubert Humphrey's line that "the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

The Catholic church's great social teaching also challenges me in many ways that don't fit neatly into a conservative ideology. That teaching requires that I view labor unions as a right and a good, basic health care as a right and a responsibility we owe to our citizens, and that I hold that men and women are entitled to a just wage. (To what extent government or other institutions should bear responsibility for these rights is a more difficult question requiring prudence and great care.)

You may be seeing a theme here. The Catholic vision of life permeates everything. Thus, it shapes the way I view sexuality – as a great gift from God but also with certain boundaries and limits – but also the way I view how we should build our towns and cities and care for the environment, raise our animals, cultivate our food. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity – mentioned earlier – causes me to be distrustful of big government – where it isn’t warranted – but also of big corporations.

None of this fits into our neat political categories. And it leads to quite a bit of misunderstanding from those on the outside. When I lived in D.C., certain positions I took – including my opposition to the Iraq war – made people think I'd become a Beltway liberal. Others cause people to think of me as a Neanderthal. What I am, at the very least, is an uncomfortable conservative and, increasingly, I find myself rejecting the label altogether, not because being a conservative is a bad thing or that I disagree with many conservative positions but because in the end I'm Catholic. And Catholicism, despite what its many detractors say and too many of its adherents demonstrate, is not an ideology, but a way of seeing the world, of living all reality that transcends our narrow political categories.

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Sat, 11/30/2013 - 7:36am
A very thoughtful article that sums up my position as well; the usual political labels reflect a principle of division that does not coincide with the commitments that emerge from my Catholic faith.
Javan Kienzle
Sun, 12/01/2013 - 8:14am
Being a Catholic is sometimes difficult -- not difficult to believe in basic Catholic precepts, but difficult to be a member of a dogmatic Catholic Church. Yet with the advent of Pope Francis -- who appears to be trying to walk in the path of a loving Christ -- formerly disaffected ("fallen away") Catholics seem to be returning to the Church in droves, or at very least are opening their once closed ears. It is not surprising that nonCatholics frequently misunderstand Catholics and Catholicism; Catholics themselves frequently misunderstand their religion and their Church. Those of us who try to walk a moderate path are, as Conor Dugan has discovered, assailed from both sides. I am a convert, and it is not unusual for converts to go to extremes, even sometimes becoming zealots. I hope I am not a zealot. I don't think I am; my late husband once referred to me as an eclectic Catholic. (Some call that cafeteria Catholicism.) I believe in Catholicism, but I don't believe the Catholic Church owns my mind, my conscience, or even my soul -- those belong to me and a loving God. I am normally considered a "liberal." Ergo, liberal friends take it for granted that I back abortion-on-demand. I do not. Abortion is taking an innocent life. Although I believe there are times -- increasingly rare -- when abortion may be necessary, the fact remains: Abortion is taking an innocent life. Christians weep for the crucifying of an innocent man who died for humankind; should we not weep for the killing of an innocent baby who dies for no good reason? Yet nonCatholic friends say to me, dismissively, "Oh, you are against abortion just because you're Catholic." My response is, "No, I was against abortion-on-demand long before I became a Catholic; one of the main reasons I became a Catholic is because the Church is against abortion." I am anti-abortion because I am pro-life. As such, it amazes me that many who profess to be pro-life nonetheless back the death penalty, and are incapable of differentiating between killing people in a "just war" as opposed to a wrongful war. I believe that our God is a God of love, compassion, understanding and forgiveness. We are told that He created us in His image. I cannot believe He is anti-homosexual. I do not understand why, with so much hate in the world, we should not encourage true love wherever it blooms. To discriminate against homosexuals who wish to marry is like killing a flower because it is blooming along a fence instead of in a formal flowerbed. (Idle thought: I've never heard of a homosexual having an abortion, whereas countless "good" Christians are having them by the ton. No wonder Jesus said Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.) On a plaque on the wall of a monastery of cloistered nuns are the words: "When you die, you will be judged by love." Can we -- should we -- do anything less than judge others by love while we are living?
J. Alejandro
Sun, 12/01/2013 - 2:40pm
Ms. Kienzle I can understand your sentiments but I also see in your reply the use of terms determined by the narratives of others. For example, what has now become a cliché that opposition to "gay" marriage must come from a position of anti-homosexual "hate", or that being "pro-life" is morally or philosophically incompatible with the death penalty (I do no support the death penalty but for other more practical reasons), or differentiating between killing people in a “just war” as opposed to a wrongful war.
Javan Kienzle
Sun, 12/01/2013 - 5:11pm
I made no reference -- nor was any intended -- to "anti-homosexual hate"; my reference to hate referred to all types of hate extant in the world -- including hate between ethnic factions and various religious fundamentalist groups, among others. As for the death penalty and abortion, as Bishop Gumbleton has said, pro-life is a seamless garment; one cannot cut holes in it to fit one's beliefs or disbeliefs. Too many so-called liberals are all too willing to inveigh against the death penalty, but all too ready to fight for abortion-on-demand. Killing is killing, no matter what slippery term one applies to the pros and cons. Which is why abortion-on-demand advocates don't call themselves pro-abortion, but rather describe themselves as being pro-choice. Where does the aborted baby's choice come in?
Sun, 12/01/2013 - 8:54am
How refreshing. A well written, thoughtful article followed by two thoughtful comments. (Bob and Javan) Thank you.
Sun, 12/01/2013 - 9:50am
Amen Mr. Dugan.
Dick B
Sun, 12/01/2013 - 11:54am
Finally, someone put into words what I have thought for years. Thank you for expressing what I could not in writing, but have felt in my heart.
Bill Fullmer
Sun, 12/01/2013 - 3:37pm
I too appreciate the thoughtfulness and skilled writing. Mr. Dugan's writing leads me to think the tensions between living a meaningful life and political labels is a problem for many regardless of ones life-guiding principles. I know those tensions lead me to consider myself an independent-moderate with regard to politics. Oh, and while I'm not Catholic, I love the messages coming from Pope Francis. He is a messenger of a loving God.
John Q. Public
Sun, 12/01/2013 - 9:33pm
Conor's irritation is the same as that of about 200 million other Americans: the attempted encapsulation of their self, through their religious and political philosophy, in a single word. If he thinks it's chafing to be labeled a "conservative Catholic," he hasn't walked in the shoes of a "libertarian atheist."
Mon, 12/02/2013 - 12:51am
I have no doubts about Mr. Dugan’s knowledge of his religious, but I struggling to understand how he defines a ‘conservative’. Mr. Dugan seems to have learned from his Church nothing about individual and individual responsibilities, “There is no abstraction known as the individual.” I had learn through my church that God gave us 'free will', how each person was responsible for their choices, and that God judged the individual by those choices. It appears Mr. Dugan feels government has a paternal (“the moral test of government is how that government treats…the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”) responsibility for selected members of its society. I feel governments were created facilitate the orderly function of its community and people are responsible for how they treat others in their community. Could it be Mr. Dugan is like many in politics today that want you to believe what they say and not pay attention to what they do or what they believe? Does simply calling oneself a ‘conservative’ make them one?